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Emma Goldman - A Social Commitment

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In the summer of 1868 Abraham Goldman married Taube Zodokoff, a widow with two daughters. Emma Goldman was born to the couple a year later and was soon followed by two boys. Abraham was an innkeeper in the small Lithuanian town of Papile. Jewish citizens were in the majority but German culture was dominant. The Russian Tsar, the supreme ruler of Russia, held political power in the area. Since the family inn also served as a training center for the Russian military, the Goldman family directly felt the authority of the Russian government.

At the age of seven, Emma was sent to the Prussian seaport of Konigsberg to live with relatives and attend a private Jewish elementary school, despite her father's reluctance to have an educated daughter. Emma transferred to a public school when her family moved to Konigsberg. It was there that young Emma was befriended by a teacher who introduced her to opera and literature and encouraged her dreams.

When Emma was twelve her father moved the family once again, this time to the large city of St. Petersburg, Russia, to seek work. Emma's formal education ended there as she and her siblings were required to work to supplement the family income. Emma continued to educate herself with every opportunity in the sophisticated city of St. Petersburg, which was also home to a rising generation of Russian political radicals.

Emma became fascinated with female political martyrs (women who gave their lives for a political cause) and was influenced in particular by Nikolay Chernyshevsky's novel, What is to Be Done? In it, the heroine rejects her perceived destiny in order to become an ordinary physician among Russia's poor people.

With the collapse of the radical movement in Russia and facing pressure from her father to marry, young Emma decided she needed to leave Russia to pursue her dream of independence and social commitment. In 1885 at the age of sixteen, Emma arrived in the United States with her half-sister Helena aboard the German steamship Elbe. It was the same year that the Statue of Liberty was shipped to New York City from France to welcome immigrants such as Emma.

The girls lived with their elder sister Lena and found jobs in the expanding industrial city of Rochester, New York. Emma worked factory jobs and soon met a fellow laborer, Jacob Kersner, whom she married in 1886. Although the couple divorced in 1889, the marriage provided Emma with a claim to U.S. citizenship.

Emma Goldman stands on a car as she speaks at Union Square. A well-known anarchist and lecturer, Goldman fought to achieve a cooperative commonwealth in America and was often arrested by local officials on charges such as conspiracy and inciting a riot. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

Emma Goldman - Radical Activities [next]

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